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Besides being few and far between, I find most dedicated holiday-themed games cheesy and unappealing (not that some of the games in the list are without a cheese-factor). What is more exciting for me is games where you unexpectedly find notes of Christmas. Subtle reminders that even our in-game heroes get to enjoy the holidays.
Here are five games with holiday surprises that you should play — if you can find them — in no particular order.
Nights Into Dreams
Nights Into Dreams goes way back. The game was first released in 1996 for the Sega Saturn. Developed by Sonic Team, it was eventually remade numerous times for several different platforms, including PlayStation 2, Windows PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.
Nights has a strange storyline about two teenagers who are somehow able to visit the dream worlds Nightopia and Nightmare. The story is not too engaging, but the gameplay is addicting and fun. Most of the game has you flying through the dreamscapes in a race against time. It’s like a flying obstacle course.
In December 1996, shortly after its initial launch, Sonic Team released a truncated Christmas-themed version of the game called Christmas Nights. The demo-like title is decked out with snow and Christmas trees and has the kids on a holiday adventure to rescue a Christmas star from the realm of Nightmare for their town’s tree.
Christmas Nights was mostly given away in issues of game magazines and bundled with other titles to promote Saturn sales, so it’s rather hard to find in that medium. Fortunately, it is included in the HD remakes for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3, which is available on each platform’s respective store. Nights HD also has several easter eggs, which you can find a guide to in the Steam forums.
Saints Row: How the Saints Saved Christmas
If you like your Christmas games with a lot of action and tons of humor, the How the Saints Saved Christmas DLC for Saints Row IV is the way to go. It was the second mission pack released for the game and has three missions, all involving trying to cheer up Playa and rescue Santa from his Matrix-like hell.
The game is filled with pop-culture Christmas references, including a Red Rider (Crimson Cowboy to avoid copyright issues) BB gun and utterances of the famous Christmas Story phrase, “You’ll shoot your eye out, Kid.” Shaundi also makes reference to the Grinch. Oh, and don't let us forget the really bad, albeit (ahem) form-fitting, Christmas sweaters.
You’ll be gunning down gingerbread men with your air rifle and pummling the evil Santa Clawz boss with the Christmas Dubstep Gun. Like all Saints games and DLC, this isn’t one for the kiddies.
Super Mario Odyssey
Super Mario Odyssey for Nintendo Switch is the newest game on the list and might not be one that you would expect to have a Christmas theme. However, one region in the game called the Snow Kingdom is a frigid world with snow slopes, icy cold water, and Goombas wearing Santa caps.
While not a strictly Christmas-themed area, it still manages to capture the feel of the holidays, but watch that you don’t freeze to death. Your main task will be to gather all the Power Moons to escape the level and go to the next region.
No extra DLC or tricks are needed to access the level. It will be about the ninth or tenth region that you visit. However, the game is a Switch exclusive, so there is your price for entry. If you already have a Switch, Super Mario Odyssey is on sale right now in the eShop for $41.99. It usually runs $59.99.
Batman: Arkham Origins
The Christmas theme in Batman: Arkham Origins is subtle but prevalent nonetheless, which is why we love it. The game is set during Christmas Eve. You will find snow and holiday decorations, but there is not too much Christmas joy in Gotham.
The game even features a holiday-themed in-game song called “The Night Before Christmas” by Christopher Drake. The song has church and sleigh bells for that festive tone but retains the dark and ominous feel as any Batman ambient music should.
Even though it's not as festive as some of the other games on the list, it is still worthy of playing this Christmas. It is not the best Batman game in the Arkham series but is still a solid entry worth the low price tag of $20 on the PlayStation Store (PS3) and Steam.
Duke Nukem 3D
Now, this last one was a stretch because we were coming up short, but it still fits the bill. Like Saints Row IV, Duke Nukem 3D does not have a holiday-themed level baked in, but rather it comes as an expansion pack called Duke: Nuclear Winter.
The gist of the plot is that Santa was kidnapped and brainwashed into an evil version of himself by the same aliens that Duke previously stomped out. This time, though, the aliens have backup in the form of the “Feminist Elven Militia” (FEM, get it?). As Duke, players have to journey up north all the way to Santa’s workshop to vanquish the brainwashed Father Christmas and the aliens.
Players will be up against snowmen armed with snowballs, female elves with machine guns, and Pig Cops and Enforcers dressed in Santa costumes and armed to the bells. Coincidentally (or maybe not), just like in Saints, old Kris Kringle serves as the boss and goes by the name Santa Claws (as opposed to Santa Clawz in Saints).
As you have probably already guessed, this is also an oldie like Nights. It was released in 1997 for PCs on MS-DOS. You can still find it used on the internet, and the Internet Archive has the ISO, but good luck getting it to run. Unless you have an old DOS rig in the attic or love tinkering with emulators, this pick might be one to skip this Christmas.
As with our Halloween playlist from a couple of years ago, we would love to hear your picks for Christmas-themed video games that we should try out this year. Drop us a note in the comments.